What you see isn’t always what you get. How many times have you heard the response to “How did it go?” be “I think everyone is on board?” or “I didn’t hear any big objections.” I was on a call recently when the leader said, “I’ll take silence as agreement.” Of course, on the more routine topics that is an efficient way to run a meeting. Yet, in a change you are looking for commitment and an enthusiastic
“I’m in and here are my ideas”— not “I didn’t find a reason to openly disagree with you.”
But what about resistance below the surface? Here are subtle clues that you may have unseen resistance on your hands:
• Silence on an important and meaningful topic
• Change in behavior (e.g., a typically engaged or outspoken person who is silent)
• Comments or questions that reinforce the status quo
• An overly emotional reaction, even if not directed to you or the topic
• Consistent unavailability for a discussion after repeated tries
• Failure to follow through on committed actions in spite of consistent agreement to do so
These examples aren’t as direct as “I have concerns” or “I know you have some good ideas, but I’m not comfortable moving forward right now”— that is productive resistance you can address. But some resistance is never spoken, so you have to look for clues.
Resistance is typically caused by a divergence from:
• Beliefs: “What you are saying doesn’t align with what I believe to be true”
• Feelings: “These changes make me feel uncertain or afraid”
• Values: “This goes against my personal values”
• Trust: “I don’t trust you as a credible voice on this topic”
• Actions: “Your actions don’t give me confidence”
In my research, I found that the most common initial resistance occurred under the surface. Examples included:
Beliefs—an investor who gave positive signals but privately didn’t believe the business case was accurate
Feelings—team members afraid to give up individual perks and change the way they develop software
Values—a leader who didn’t believe in sharing the profits with anyone other than senior leaders
Trust— colleagues who didn’t initially trust someone less experienced, even though she had more knowledge
Actions—the group leader who preferred to compete with other groups rather than collaborate
In all these cases, the change, or wave, was successful in spite of initial passive resistance because it was managed through close collaboration and communication.
It’s hard to break down resistance if you miss that it even exists. Tips for addressing resistance:
• Listen. Resistance can simply be a need to be heard. Start with understanding someone else’s point of view.
• Understand the root cause. Consider why the resistance is there, so that you know what to do with it. Is it the topic, the way it was shared, or the person who shared it? Explore why the resistance exists.
• Educate. Persuasive new information is needed before you can overcome resistance and update conventional wisdom. Identify needed information based on the root cause of the resistance.
• Translate. Share useful information in a way that is relevant for that person or group. Telling a story or an analogy can be a way to take new information and apply it.
• Work together. Find the common ground that you can stand on going forward. Identify an issue that can bring you together. For example, in my book, Wave Maker Guwan Jones shared a favorite closing comment, “Let’s work together on this” strikes a positive and collaborative tone.
Don’t be too comfortable with “no news is good news”— look more closely for signs of resistance. There may be subtle signals that the unspoken needs your attention.